This is going to be one of those “compare and contrast” pieces your English teacher was so fond of forcing you to write. First, I’m going to gush about Diahann Carroll, whom I have worshipped since I was a teenager. Then, I’m going to introduce you to one of my image consulting clients. What do they have in common? It’s all about familial and social pressure—pressure that can forge diamonds or crush to powder.
Diahann’s refined beauty, ladylike glamour, mellifluous voice, and firm-yet-amiable character won over white Middle America and gave many African-American viewers (although not all…more on that later) a new point of pride in the 1960’s sitcom Julia.
The weekly TV adventures of hardworking nurse and widowed mom depicted a well-educated, cultured, hard-working middle-class black woman long before the Cosby Show’s Huxtable family. Radical stuff back then. (Hmmm….well, let’s see. Where is today’s equivalent? Get back to me with that, will you? I’m stumped.)
As Diahann states in her enlightening and entertaining autobio The Legs are the Last to Go (speaking of Lena Horne): “She just overwhelmed everyone with her beauty in a way that made race less relevant. Beauty and talent, it seemed, allowed racial barriers to be relaxed.” So it was with Diahann. And the Harlem-born beauty points to her ambitious mother as the well-spring of much of her success.
Diahann, your mother’s calling
Mabel Johnson taught Diahann to be uppity. “She,” claims the lovely black actress and chanteuse, “is the woman who made it her business to nurture me so completely as a child that I felt beautiful and special from the start.” Not only her career success, but Diahann’s personal style and public demeanor stem from her mother’s firm, unswerving commitment to giving an unfriendly world no reason to further disrespect her family.
Diahann credits the movies and her mother for her more “studied idea of style.” “I grew up watching MGM musicals, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lena Horne, all women who were concerned with looking smashing, not natural.
“Then there was the woman who schooled me early on in the ways of style—my mother. She was a high-school-educated woman with a highly developed sense of dignity, and she was on a mission to make me aware of how good I looked. My confidence, my drive, and care about my personal style all come from here. We didn’t have much money, but, oh, did we have style!”
Breaking through the upper crust
Both Diahann’s parents were what she called “strivers”…trying to do better than their own parents, setting their sights on better jobs, better neighborhoods, better chances for their precious daughter Diahann. In the 1940s, ambitious, social-climbing blacks like the Johnsons idolized sophisticated, soignée Harlem nightlife society. Appearance and attitude were crucial aspects to entering this exclusive group—culture and status were the keys to this kingdom.
To this end, Diahann was prohibited to play with neighborhood kids; her time was devoted to studying voice, dance, piano—all things her mother associated with “higher class” blacks. Mabel fussed over Diahann’s appearance, whether it was for an elementary school play or a Tiny Tots choir solo. Diahann recalls she always “…looked regal. My mother saw to that. It was always her goal to make me look as clean and pretty as possible….She was of the generation that had just come North from the South. And they were obsessed with looking clean and attractively dressed because we lived in a county that promoted the idea that blacks were neither.”
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree
Mabel’s own mother, Rebecca, was a powerful, ambitious black woman as well; she sent Mabel to the next town for a better high school education (the first time that was ever done for a black girl in her North Carolina town). Grandmother Rebecca owned her own cotton and tobacco farm, rare for any woman in those days, much less a black woman. As you might expect, Rebecca encountered plenty of racism, but, Diahann admiringly reports, “She would not respond; she just stood her ground until her business was done. I learned something from her quiet dignity in the presence of racism. It was difficult to watch, but impressive…Studied composure helped her get along in the world.” (Do you notice Diahann has chosen the word “studied” twice now? Telling, isn’t it?)
Diahann was always aware of being different; her mother’s insistence on perfect attire set her apart. Both her mother and grandmother wanted her to “project a ‘better than’ quality.” Well, the young Diahann certainly did, from her meticulously cultivated Shirley Temple curls to her tailor-made frocks. Her parents encouraged snobbery; the party line was “Let’s try to do better than that!”
Diahann continued singing lessons, was taken by her mother to shows, and was constantly scrutinized for propriety by her over-conscientious parents. “I never hung out on the street. I carried myself in the ladylike way my mother taught me.”
In her late teens, when Diahann’s nightclub singing started being noticed, critics hailed her as the second Lena Horne. She told them she’d “…rather be known as the first Diahann Carroll. That came from my mother, who had nurtured me to believe that all things were indeed possible.”
Miss Smarty Pants
Diahann moved in with a maiden aunt to attend the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. While there, a friend sent her photo to Ebony magazine; Diahann was hired on as a model (to her own surprise, she arrived for the daytime interview in an evening gown).
Several mentors added polish and sophistication to her ingrained propriety: Ebony’s makeup gurus schooled her in bringing a chic leather hatbox to modeling gigs; it held her makeup, de rigueur black pumps, and a variety of white and black gloves.
Ophelia DeVore’s famous Harlem charm school taught Diahann model-perfect posture. “You must tuck under,” insisted the strict, beautiful, and strong-minded DeVore, “and keep the shoulders straight.” She’d scold the girls if they walked with even a hint of flirtatiousness. (Not exactly the concave stance and catwalk strut we see today.)
The next stop on the Diahann Carroll Success Express was first prize on a TV talent show, which led to an audition for Arthur Godfrey’s mega-popular radio show. But Godfrey told a racist joke while flirting with her mother and Diahann haughtily rebuked him, shocking both Arthur and her mother. Diahann avows, “All her life, both she and my father, dignified and upright as they were, had had to stoop and bow their heads when faced with racism. They wanted to move up in the world, and getting upset…was never their approach.” To Mabel’s surprise, Godfrey announced to his equally startled secretary “Miss Smarty Pants here is going to be on our radio show next week.”
Diahann was singing in Latin Quarter nightclubs at 17; the showgirls mentored her in beauty, skincare and diet techniques. She quelled bouts of stage fright by calling upon her mother’s training, saying “Here you go, Diahann Carroll,” as she took the stage in her spangled ballgown.
Her agent believed she was Broadway-bound, and urged her to continue to project innocence and delicacy.“Remember you’re a lady! If it ain’t real, don’t wear it!” he said, and encouraged her to eschew skintight, blingy nightclub attire—and to always cross her legs quickly upon sitting. Defying her agent and her mother, Diahann experimented with slinky, padded gowns as she blossomed into an in-demand Manhattan chanteuse, reveling in her newfound sensuality.
Soon, Hollywood beckoned her to audition for the lead in the all-black musical Carmen Jones. (Diahann is on the far right.)
Her acting skills weren’t up to the task, but she was cast in the chorus. She didn’t appreciate the vulgar costumes or the way the dialogue reinforced stereotypes (“dees, dems, dats”—what Diahann deems sounding “down market”).
But her film successes (like Porgy and Bess)…
…and continuing singing engagements (including a string of appearances on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show) resulted in a role in Truman Capote’s Broadway smash, House of Flowers.
And that led to Diahann’s Tony-winning role as a black fashion model in love with a white writer in 1961’s No Strings—a role created expressly for her by Richard Rodgers.
Appalling side note: Richard Rodgers (who wrote South Pacific’s powerful anti-racism anthem You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught) asked Diahann not to attend a cast party, because—get this!—the hostess “felt it would confuse her children to see a black woman who was sophisticated and elegant because they didn’t exist.” This woman was sure Rodgers must have hired diction and etiquette tutors, because no black woman could possibly speak or act like that. Diahann threw an alternate party across the street and invited everyone in the cast and crew. Guess which party they attended?
From East Side to Sunset Boulevard
a charming romantic film; they shared the screen with an equally gorgeous white couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Then came 1967 and NBC was looking for a pretty black actress to portray a young Vietnam widow, Julia.
Diahann got the part, but encountered resistance. “Hal Kanter, the creator of the show had reservations. He had written for Amos ‘n’ Andy…and had a firm sense of what Middle American wanted for its first African-American sitcom star in 1968.”
“And despite the network’s faith in me, Hal was not completely convinced that I was the right woman for the role. He felt my image was too worldly and glamorous.” Diahann presented herself at the first reading in a simple wool dress and won Kanter over.
Amidst very public marriages, engagements and affairs, Diahann retained her ladylike demeanor and elegant style.
More recent triumphs include starring as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Sunset Boulevard. (By the way, Webber challenged her to sing on the spot during her audition. Diahann, who was promised rehearsal time, refused to be cowed by his polite bullying. “I would not capitulate. I had not spent all these many years in my profession only to be denied what was due to me.”)
Many of her fans loved to watch her trade over-dressed insults on Dynasty as Dominique Deveraux…
..and younger TV audiences know her as the mother of a handsome black surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.
Diahann, a breast cancer survivor, is still going strong and is as elegant, refined and beautiful as ever. She’s classically ladylike in every way—and she gives all to credit to her uppity mother.
“You’ve got to be carefully taught…”
Diahann became a diamond-hard diva thanks to the power of family and social pressure. One of my clients didn’t fare as well. Time to compare and contrast. Priscilla (not her real name) arrived at a seminar for professional polish wearing an L.L. Bean-style button-front denim dirndl skirt that fit her like a rodeo clown’s barrel.
It hung on her small body and clumped around her slender ankles. This unfortunate garment was paired with a shapeless button-up shirt, which was covered by what seemed to be a men’s jacket. Graying hair cut in a lifeless pageboy, 1980’s goggle-sized glasses, sneakers, no makeup on her pale but glorious cheekbones, eyes like a newborn chick–she looked, as my father would have said, like something the cat dragged through the keyhole backwards.
She folded herself neatly into her seat and when asked, told me, very softly and with an averted face, that she was seeking sartorial help because she had just lost 60 pounds and wasn’t sure how to dress. She was reentering the workforce as a professional architect. (I would have bet money on herbal soap maker or something along that line.)
I waited for the rest of the class to disperse before gently observing that her taste seemed to run to classic clothes, and asked her—on a hunch—if she had other dirndl button-front skirts. Yes, several, in denim, printed, and khaki, all purchased from the Goodwill.
Noted. A few more delicate inquiries and I ascertained she was NOT part of a religious sect that doomed female followers to eternal frumpiness in order to protect hapless male disciples from fleshly torments.
Another strong hunch prompted me to ask if she was, by any chance, from New England. After a brief, stunned silence, she admitted she was and asked me how I knew that. I replied by asking her if all the women in her family dressed like this. Another surprised nod from the now practically hypnotized Priscilla.
Me: You know, don’t you, that these clothes aren’t really flattering to you. What do you think might be stopping you from dressing in a more contemporary fashion?
Her: I think people will make fun of me.
Me: What people? Who would make fun of you?
Her: My family.
Me: Why would they…what would they say?
Her: They would tell me I’m being too fancy. That I was trying to show off. Trying to be something you’re not.
Me: (Another blinding insight) Are any of your family still alive?
Her: No, they’re all gone now.
Me: So, in your head, your family, none of whom are still alive, is making fun of you for being uppity and showing off. Even though they’re not here anymore.
Her: (The dawn comes up like thunder.) Yes.
Me: Priscilla, you’re dressing for the ghosts in your head!
Her: You’re right. Why *am* I doing that?
I could tell by the look on her face that she was on the right track now, and as intelligent as she was, she’d put it all together.
It’s hard work, coming to grips with the fact that your family has been crushing your spirit and femininity in a probably loving attempt to protect you from harm or pain. But the truth can set you free. After I told the newly (but still calmly) enthused Priscilla her best colors and most flattering shapes, I urged her to immediately discard every baggy horror she owned and hop it over to Talbot’s to try on some updated classics.
I encouraged her to see herself as a strong, bright, modern professional. As a woman.
Several weeks later, I got an evaluation form Priscilla had filled out. It read in part: “I thought the seminar was excellent and has made a big difference in how I feel about myself as a woman and my clothing choices.”
From a quiet, soft-spoken woman who was dressing for ghosts, that’s quite a statement.
(All Diahann Carroll quotes taken from The Legs Are The Last To Go by Diahann Carroll with Bob Morris, Harper Luxe, 2008.)